This magnificent vessel, a rare type used for storing and mixing wine, hails from an undisputed high period in Athenian artistic and cultural achievement, when the red-figure style reached its peak. It is a stately, lyrical vessel with a broad and expansive form, offset by a low foot and wide, shallow neck, with two upward-turning handles. Its substantial size affords it particular gravitas. The vessel’s robust presence is counterbalanced by the graceful execution of the figural decoration and finely-potted symmetrical body, which imbue it with an undeniable elegance. Its voluptuous contours and the combination of dynamic, fluid figures, alongside abstract ornamentation, together demonstrate a masterful execution of the red-figure style at its finest.
This stamnos features two separate but complementary scenes. The front depicts a lively procession of figures, known as a komos. This was a normally drunken and often ritual parade performed at important city festivals, including the City Dionysia or Panathenaia; as an extension of symposia (drinking parties); and sometimes as part of wedding celebrations. Here, a hired female musician or hetaira (courtesan) wearing a flowing chiton and playing the double-auloi (flute) leads the procession at the far right. She is followed by three men, nude expect for cloaks draped over their shoulders, who, by their antics and the objects they carry, tell us more about the occasion. The first youth carries a staff, indicating that the action takes places outside. Behind him, an older man, distinguished by his beard, carries a kylix (drinking cup) and turns back gesticulating, his right hand raised in the air. The presence of the drinking vessel and the man’s posture show that this is an alcohol-fuelled event. The youth bringing up the rear plays a chelys-lyra, a lyre-type instrument with a tortoiseshell soundbox. This was an instrument most closely associated with Apollo and the Muses, making it a suitable feature of symposia and the komos procession. All four figures wear fillets in their hair, denoting a celebratory atmosphere. On the reverse, three draped youths converse, with the figure on the left appearing to admonish or give direction to his companion in the centre, suggesting a context of learning and discussion. The scene takes place indoors, indicated by the presence of vessels hanging on the ‘wall’. Elaborate palmettes and scrolls adorn the handle zones, a strip of meander and checkered squares at the front and cross-squares on the reverse serves as a ground line for the figures. A band of tongues adorns the shoulder, and an ovolo kymation encircles the rim and handles.
The vase is attributed to the hand of a widely-acknowledged outstanding painter of the later fifth century, known as the Kleophon Painter. A follower of Polygnotos, who was one of the most influential painters of the red-figure technique, his work marks a transitional phase between the severity of the High Classical period and the Late Classical, florid style of painters such as Meidias. He favoured larger vessels, and his choice of subject matter tends towards scenes from daily life as opposed to mythology and the epic cycle, giving his works a distinctly human aspect. There is a clear dynamism in his treatment of figures, whose contours and drapery exhibit a fluidity not witnessed in the painting of the preceding age. The forms are round and fleshy with a sense of free movement, yet still retaining the stately dignity and subtle gravitas of the High Classical style. A characteristic of his faces are the serene dreamlike expressions, and eyes with a strongly curving lid. Unlike other vessels of similar function, including the amphora and krater, the stamnos is a rare form. The shape was particularly popular in Etruria, and is also known in South Italy, regions where Attic vessels were highly prized. It is likely that many of these vessels were made by Athenian potters and painters, intended specifically for the export market.
The vase dates from a crucial point in Athenian history. It is a product not only of the high point of red-figure painting, but of a period of unparalleled achievements – regarding economic growth, political discourse, intellectual pursuits and cultural flourishing – in the city’s entire history. The Kleophon Painter reached maturity during the ascendancy of Athens’ greatest orator and politician, Pericles, at a time when the riches of the Delian League were transferred to Athens and the ambitious Acropolis building programme was set in motion; this was the time of the construction of the Parthenon, whose world-renowned sculptures were completed by the famed Pheidias in 432 BC, around the time the Kleophon Painter was working on this very stamnos. The vase’s subject is reflective of the friezes of the Parthenon, which also depict processions of youths and people playing instruments as part of a civic, religious festival. The classical style epitomized by the sculptures is also clearly evident in the Kleophon Painter’s treatment of figures and garments and in the refined magnitude of his drawing. However, the triumphs of this so-called ‘Golden Age’ were not enough to avert impending disaster; the Kleophon Painter’s career was also marked by a period of increasingly strained relations between Athens and her allies and the members of the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta, resulting in the second installment of the bloody and protracted Peloponnesian War (431-404/3 BC). Against this ominous milieu, it is noteworthy that the artist has chosen to focus instead on two great institutions of Athenian society – civic ritual and intellectual discourse – joyful occasions that epitomize what it meant to be Athenian. The war would soon halt the trade to Italy of fine stamnoi such as this and, greater still, ultimately bring about a catastrophic conclusion to the Athenian Empire.
A final mention should be made of the vessel’s extensive pedigree. Published in 1909 as part of the collection of the esteemed scientist and archaeologist Henri de Morgan (1854-1909), it was later acquired by the businessman T.B. Walker, who amassed one of the largest private art collections in Minnesota and who later established the Walker Art Gallery (now Walker Art Centre) as a lasting cultural legacy. The vase was subsequently displayed in exhibitions at the Walker Art Centre and University of Minnesota Art Gallery, during which time it was also published by J.D. Beazley in his seminal work, Attic Red-Figure Vase-painters (1963). Two other stamnoi attributed to the Kleophon Painter are notable parallels: one, now in the Musée Royaux, Brussels (inv. no. A3091, BAPD 215149), also depicts a komos scene on the front with four figures, and three draped youths on the reverse. The second belongs to the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (inv. GR.8.1928, BAPD 215145), which employs a similar configuration of people in a scene of a warrior leaving home.
On the ‘outstanding’ qualities of the Kleophon Painter and his style, G.M.A. Richer, Attic Red-Figure Vases: A Survey (Yale, 1956), p. 143.
For the significance of the chelys-lyra and barbitos in vase-painting and their association with the komos, M. Maas and J.M. Snyder, Stringed Instruments of Ancient Greece (New Haven and London, 1989) pp. 86, 113-116.
The work of the Kleophon Painter against a Periclean backdrop is explored by M. Robertson in The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 221-223.
A study of Polygnotos and his Group is presented by S. Matheson, Polygnotos and Vase Painting in Classical Athens (Wisconsin, 1995).
The role and interpretation of Attic vases in Etruria is examined in A. Avramidou, ‘Attic Vases in Etruria: Another View on the Divine Banquet Cup by the Codrus Painter’, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 110, no. 4 (October 2006), pp. 565-569.
For the reference to Pericles’ introduction of a music competition and penchant for public feasts, Plutarch, Pericles, 11.4 and 13.6.